by David Bryant
Until July, 1969 the idea that genuine fragments of rock from the Moon would one day be available for scientific research would have seemed highly unlikely: the possibility that such material could be added at relatively low cost to an amateur collection would not have even been considered. Fifty years later, anyone can purchase a genuine (if tiny!) piece of lunar rock for as little as £20: several hundred kilos of such material is available online and from dealers (Caveat emptor! Not all ‘moon rocks’ on internet auction sites are genuine:
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the best sources are those that display membership logos of the IMCA. Even then’ it’s best to check the membership number on the IMCA website – there are always those who will add a fake logo to their auctions for enhanced credibility!)
Genuine moon rocks originate from three sources: two available to the general public, one (theoretically!) not. There are some intriguing mysteries and a good deal of controversy surrounding these sought-after mineral specimens.
The first lunaites were discovered in Antarctica in the early 1980s by American and Japanese expeditions. In the ensuing thirty years, a better knowledge of what features to look for has resulted in many others being recovered from Australia, North-west Africa, and Oman, bringing the total number of all known lunar meteorites to about 120. (See a previous article for an account of the discovery and identification of lunaites.)
Soviet Union ‘Luna 16’ probe Launched in September, 1970, Luna 16 was the first spacecraft to land on the Moon, collect samples of dust and rock, and return them to Earth. After collecting regolith samples from the Sea of Fertility, where it had Luna 16, was launched back into space 26 hours later. It returned to Earth, bringing back 101 grams of Moon rocks.
Amazingly, a tiny amount of this material has recently become available to collectors, albeit at mind-numbing cost! In December 1993, the auction house Sotheby’s sold a slide with three small lunar fragments from Luna 16 for $442,500.
The Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 Goodwill Moonrocks
Following the six successful American moon landings (1969 – 1972) the Nixon Administration gave a total of 270 samples of material brought back from the Moon to each US State and to 135 member-countries of the United Nations. Astonishingly, around 180 are unaccounted for and at least one was the subject of a private sale at a price of $5 million. This, the Honduran Apollo 17 Goodwill Moonrock, was the subject of a ‘sting’ operation to retrieve the missing Apollo samples. After lengthy legal deliberations, the rock was remounted and presented back to Honduras in 2004.
United States - Delaware, New Jersey International - Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Ireland, Malta, Nicaragua, Romania, Spain, Sweden
Probably the most intriguing of these is the Irish Apollo 11 sample. This was housed in the country’s main observatory, at Dunsink, North Dublin. In October, 1977, an unexplained fire destroyed the library at the observatory: during the investigation and clean-up that followed, the Moonrock was apparently consigned to the nearby Finglas rubbish dump, where, presumably, it remains. There is, of course, another explanation: that someone stole the rock before setting the observatory on fire to cover his tracks and hide the theft....
Are lunar minerals unique to the Moon?
Sadly, the answer since 2011, is no! On examination of the 800 or so pounds of Apollo moonrocks, most of the material was found to be virtually identical to terrestrial anorthosites, basalts dunites and so on.
Three minerals, however, were identified as being unknown on Earth: armalcolite, pyroxferroite and tranquillityite.
Since 1972, however, each of these minerals have been discovered on Earth, the last being tranquillityite, which was found in six localities in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
This, naturally, has provided ammunition for the ‘Apollo Conspiracy’ debate: however, chemical composition aside, there are other differences, the lack of any hydrated minerals being the most significant.
As a matter of fact, one last potential source of authentic moonrock – or, to be exact – lunar regolith does exist.
On his return to Earth, one of the two Apollo 15 Moonwalkers, Dave Scott, apparently found dust from the lunar surface inside his personal preference kit (PPK) This is a beta cloth bag that contained a few sentimental items that each moonwalker was allowed to take with him on the descent to the Moon. Some astronauts took photos of their families, others rings and some even Masonic regalia! Scott had (supposedly accidentally!) transferred dust from his EVA gloves to the bag. A german collectibles dealer obtained some of this material on pieces of adhesive tape and sold it from his website. I myself had an example and can confirm it exhibited the classic ‘orange marbles’ look of the lunar regolith samples from Apollo 15!
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